France’s right-wing UMP opposition was thrown into fresh turmoil on Wednesday after ex-prime minister Francois Fillon announced he was contesting the result of a bitterly disputed leadership race.
The move will further dent the image of ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP – still reeling from its loss of the presidency and parliament this year – and raises the spectre of a split on the right that would benefit the ruling Socialists.
The venomous race for the UMP leadership and accusations of voter fraud have hurt the party’s image at a time it could be taking advantage of President Francois Hollande’s falling popularity over his handling of France’s struggling economy.
Fillon, who lost by just 98 votes to Sarkozy’s close ally Jean-Francois Cope in Sunday’s vote, said the count did not include ballots cast in some of France’s overseas territories which would have handed him victory.
Fillon’s supporters said if the votes of New Caledonia, Mayotte and Wallis and Futuna were counted, he would have won a total of 88,004 votes against 87,978 for Cope.
Fillon said he conceded the race to Cope on Monday in the spirit of party unity, but was now contesting the results and asking party heavyweight Alain Juppe, Sarkozy’s ex-foreign minister, to take over as interim head of the UMP.
“Everybody can see that our party is at an impasse. Its credibility and unity are under threat. I do not want our movement to tear itself apart under the weight of suspicions that are now hanging over this vote,” Fillon said in a statement.
He said he was “saddened” by the party’s crisis, but insisted he was “simply demanding the truth”.
A UMP lawmaker who backed Fillon called the squabble “a terrible spectacle”.
“Both of them have lost their credibility. They are no statesmen,” the politician said.
Cope, a fiery and famously ambitious right-winger known for flirting with the far-right, rejected any talk of overturning the results and called for the party to unite under his banner.
“There were results, we must now rally and work together,” Cope told journalists, adding that if the results were contested his camp was ready to raise concerns about alleged voter fraud in Fillon’s favour.
“I am calling once again for Francois Fillon and all of those around him to take the hand I have extended to them. The time has come to build together,” Cope said.
The head of the UMP’s internal election commission, Patrice Gelard, said it could not overturn its decision but that both candidates could address their concerns to an appeals commission.
Juppe said he needed to think about the request that he become interim leader, but sources close to Fillon said he had already accepted the role.
The UMP’s struggle to find a replacement for Sarkozy has heartened its opponents.
On the left, a senior Socialist called the crisis a “tragicomedy” while on the far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen mocked the vote as “pathetic”.
“The UMP is definitely no longer a credible opposition to the Socialists, it is far too weakened and may be already dead,” Le Pen said at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, where she is a deputy.
Prominent UMP member Bruno Le Maire urged the party to move quickly to end the crisis.
“I want us to escape from this psychodrama as quickly as possible... A leader [Cope] has been declared, I hope we can rally behind him,” Le Maire said.
Both Fillon, a 58-year-old who was Sarkozy’s prime minister for five years, and Cope, 48, are fiscal conservatives advocating free-market policies and economic reforms.
But Cope has carved out a niche on the right flank of the UMP with his tough-talking approach to immigration and Islam.
Whoever finally does become UMP leader may not necessarily be the party’s candidate for the French presidency in 2017 as Sarkozy – still very popular with the party rank-and-file – has not ruled out a return to politics.
Hollande has been in power for six months and his popularity ratings have fallen to an all-time low amid rising discontent over the flagging economy.